April 30 was supposed to be the last day of Nicolas Maduro’s regime. Juan Guaido, elected leader of the National Assembly and contested interim president, joined with the opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, suddenly released from captivity, and called upon the Venezuelan military to unseat Maduro once and for all. The day dawned with violence. Sporadic gun battles erupted. Strategic facilities were besieged and repeatedly changed hands. According to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Maduro was idling on the tarmac, preparing to take off into exile until his sponsors in Moscow convinced him to stick it out.
For now, it seems “Operation Liberty” failed in its immediate aims. The day’s uprising ended with Lopez in the protective custody of the Chilean embassy and Guaido issuing messages from an undisclosed location urging his supporters to maintain the fight. The opportunity to quickly dispatch with Venezuela’s murderous and illegitimate regime has passed. The prospect of a protracted conflict now looms.
The fulcrum of Venezuela’s democratic revolution is the military. Decoupling the armed forces from the Maduro regime was always going to be an uphill battle. Both Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, repeatedly purged the ranks of the armed forces of those with suspect loyalties. The country’s armed forces are implicated in the regime’s crimes, including the murder of civilians and drug trafficking. The military owns a stake in Chavisimo’s criminal enterprises, and the limited immunities and sanctions “off ramps” the West has offered Venezuelan officials through back channels have proven insufficient incentive to risk sacrificing Maduro and, by extension, themselves.
Dismantling a criminal regime from the inside is complicated and fraught, and that complexity confounds a simpler narrative in which the United States is the source of all Venezuela’s ills. For the usual suspects, Venezuela’s liberal uprising stalled only because of American involvement.
“Important to understand what an enormous gift Trump gave Maduro by so aggressively backing Guaido,” wrote Matt Duss, a foreign-policy advisor to Sen. Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, in a remark accepting at face value Caracas’s effort to blame Washington for the uprising (unaware, perhaps, that Caracas blames Washington for most of its own failures). Barack Obama’s former deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes agreed. “Having Elliot Abrams and John Bolton as the face of a regime change policy in Latin America is not going to serve us or the Venezuelan people well,” he remarked.
The self-described socialist columnist Owen Jones denounced the “Trump-backed military coup” as just another American military intervention in Latin America, declining to note that most of Latin America supports Guaido. Former Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein insisted that America was seeking a pretext to go to war with Venezuela, a conspiracy theory that also appears to resonate with Sen. Chris Murphy. Even the economist Jeffrey Sachs, in an interview with Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman, dismissed the “self-proclaimed president” Juan Guaido as a performer in a dance “choreographed with the United States” amid a campaign of suffering imposed on the Venezuelan people by Washington.
There is a remarkable degree of chauvinism in these assertions. They presume to an excessive degree that the world revolves around Washington D.C., and events beyond America’s borders are explained by the machinations of bureaucratic cabals inside the Beltway. Though it would be unwise to underestimate American involvement in the preservation of its interests in its own hemisphere, it’s equally unenlightened to presume that Venezuelans do not command their own destiny.
Guaido is not the “self-proclaimed” interim president, as Sachs contended. Following Maduro’s alleged reelection in a May 2018 vote that no outside observer claimed was either “free” or “equitable,” the nation’s legitimate supreme court—sidelined and exiled by the Maduro regime in its mad quest to preserve its increasingly waning authority—declared that the presidency had been vacated. In accordance with the Venezuelan constitution, the office’s power devolved to Guaido.
The United States did play a role in augmenting Guaido’s legitimacy by coordinating with much of the Western world to simultaneously recognize Guadio’s claim to the office. The alternative—the recognition of Maduro’s legitimacy—was unavailable because he has none left. Maduro has created parallel courts and legislatures after holding fraudulent referenda, he hasn’t won a free election since 2013, and his government is responsible for the sporadic massacre of anti-government protesters. The United States did not impose illegitimacy on the Chavistas; they embraced it of their own volition.
Ultimately, neither a moral calculation nor a reasonable assessment of risk could lead American lawmakers to take an entirely hands-off approach to the crisis in Venezuela. The Maduro regime is propped up by some of the world’s most roguish regimes, including Cuba, China, Turkey, Russia, and Iran. Caracas receives financial and military support from Russia, and Venezuela plays host to Moscow’s nuclear bombers and Russian mercenaries hardened from combat in places like Ukraine and Syria. There are thousands of Cuban military and intelligence assets operating in Venezuela, many of whom are engaged in the brutal suppression of dissidents. The Iranian terrorist proxy Hezbollah has long maintained a presence in Venezuela, supporting its operations through narcotics trafficking in the region. Neither Barack Obama’s administration nor Trump’s could afford to turn a blind eye toward this tinderbox.
The extent to which the Trump administration has involved itself in the Venezuelan crisis is the least costly effort it could make in resolving what threatens now to become a region-wide nightmare. Poverty and starvation-level rationing are rampant—a condition that predates the Trump-era imposition of sanctions on broader sectors of the Venezuelan economy. Criminality has become a way of life, and civil society has been crippled. Narcotics trafficking is institutionalized. Amid an exodus of affected Venezuelans, a refugee crisis is intensifying. The state is flush with petroleum, weapons, paramilitary organizations, and foreign mercenaries. The prospect of a failed state on America’s doorstep directly threatens U.S. security, and it could necessitate deeper U.S. involvement—even military involvement. But this was a course on which the Venezuelan government set the world years ago. Supporting a peaceful and legal democratic uprising was the best of the bad options before policymakers in Washington.
But many of Washington’s critics make no distinction between supporting and engineering this uprising, robbing Venezuelans of agency in the process. For them, it’s forever 1973. They fancy themselves the most enlightened of observers, but the assumption that Venezuelans could not themselves secure their own freedom without the aid of benevolent colonial masters in Washington is the opposite of enlightenment.